Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card

The Worthing stories were among the first that Card ever wrote, and this volume bring together all of them: a novel, The Worthing Chronicle, and a collection of short stories set in the same universe. This is set in the far future, when humanity has spread unchallenged across many worlds. On one remote, medieval and insignificant world, a small isolated village lives peaceably as it has done for countless generations, until tragedy strikes: suddenly, they start suffering accidents and experiencing pain, something previously unknown. At the same time a couple of strangers enter the village, an old man and a young woman, who communicate only by telepathy. They stay at the inn and ask the innkeeper's son to write down their story, which they relay to him at night in vivid dreams. The book alternates between telling the story of events in the village, and of those in his dreams.

Long before, some people had developed the ability to read minds but were almost entirely wiped out in a fierce reaction against them; the survivors were all members of the Worthing family, and kept their ability (known as the Swipe) hidden. Human civilisation was highly sophisticated, with the more prominent citizens living for hundreds of years by the expedient of spending most of it asleep via the drug somec, only waking occasionally. The story being told in the dreams in that of the old man, Jason Worthing, who had spent thousands of years asleep. As the book progresses, the circumstances which led to Jason's arrival and the return of pain are gradually revealed.

The other stories in The Worthing Saga are divided into two groups, Tales of Capitol and Tales from the Forest of Waters. In both cases, they describe the same events with the same characters as are covered in the novel, but in more detail and from different perspectives. Tales of Capitol are set in the former capital planet of the human empire, entirely covered by one continuous building and nominally ruled for millennia by Mother, who wakes for one day every five years to check on progress. Tales from the Forest of Waters is set on a remote planet in which the Worthing family develop their psychic abilities.

The Tales of Capitol contain a story which made me smile wryly, about a woman who becomes famous simply by continuously recording every aspect of her life for sale to her fans. She eventually loses the ability to distinguish reality from the show she puts on for the recordings, including in her personal relationships. Judging by the publicity gained today by some "celebrities" who are famous for constantly parading their private lives in public, it seems that life is imitating fiction once again.

Overall, an interesting collection with an unusual setting. Relatively slow-paced but well told, focusing on what it is to be human. One key aspect of the Worthing universe leaves me puzzled, though – the attractions of somec. In Capitol society, the higher the ratio of sleep time to waking time, the higher the status. But people don't actually live any longer in subjective time, and in only waking occasionally for relatively brief periods they become separated from friends and family, and detached from society; surely increasingly lost and alienated as time goes by. Perhaps I'm missing something…

Friday, 23 October 2009

New Scientist magazine

New Scientist magazine recently (19 September) included a special feature on SF under the heading "The Fiction of Now". It kicks off with an article by Kim Stanley Robinson who argues that British SF is currently in a golden age and is undeservedly ignored by the literati when it comes to nominations for literary prizes. This is followed by a series of very short stories, consisting of just a few paragraphs, by Ken Macleod, Ian McDonald, Nicola Griffith, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, Ian Watson and Justina Robson. Geoff Ryman has a piece on what the world may really be like in 100 years, and there are reviews of novels by Greg Egan (Oceanic), Iain Banks (Transition), Margaret Attwood (The Year of the Flood), Fay Weldon (Chalcot Crescent) and Charles Stross (Wireless). All credit to the magazine for its occasional promotions of SF as well as its often thought-provoking summaries of current scientific developments and their potential implications.

A good example of the latter is the recent four-part series "Blueprint for a Better World", in which its contributors look beyond the usual gloomy forecasts to propose and justify a wide range of measures which could be introduced now in order to improve our prospects. They vary from the social through the political to big science projects. The proposals are often controversial (especially the social ones), such as legalising the use of drugs and collecting everyone's DNA profile at birth. Adopting genetic engineering as a way of boosting crop yields in drier environments also won't sit well with everyone. Putting more emphasis on living long, happy lives rather than accumulating material wealth through continuous economic growth is an interesting social idea; switching to a shorter working week (but working longer days) might achieve that as well as saving energy. Taxing carbon to encourage its economical use, plus encouraging local "green" power generation and eating less meat, all address global warming, but so does finding ways of cooling the planet (it now being too late to avoid significant warming just through reducing CO2 emissions). More generally (and in my opinion perhaps the most worthwhile, although also the most difficult) would be to promote rational decision-making rather than acting on gut feelings and superstition; especially on the part of politicians, but also the general population. The series finished with brief descriptions of twenty-nine of the most promising ideas in the field of green technology.

That issue (3 October) also considers the implications for the planet of the latest computer projections from the UK Meteorological Office which indicate that if we carry on as we are now, the Earth could warm by an average of 4°C within the next half-century. "Catastrophic" is a reasonable word to use for the forecast outcome as far humanity is concerned. It is still not too late to avoid this, given a serious and sustained global effort. Holding down the increase to just 2 degrees is still feasible; but it seems that the probability of that happening is no higher than 50:50. More and more political leaders are coming around to the realisation that this is a serious and rapidly growing problem which needs action now, but public acceptance of that is sluggish and unwilling if not resentful.

Another article considers how the planet might recover from runaway global warming and the associated mass extinctions, by examining the record in the rocks from the last time there was a period of rapid and substantial warming. This was the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum of 55 million years ago, when the Earth heated by 9ºC over a period of a few thousand years. Hint: forget humanity, think rats and cockroaches…and maybe ten million years before biodiversity gets going again.

All in all, this is a magazine which constantly contains items of interest to any follower of science or SF (as well as many good ideas for SF writers!). Highly recommended.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

I've recently finished reading Dan Brown's latest epic, assured of massive sales by the phenomenal success of his previous book, The Da Vinci Code. I read TDVC when it first came out, before all of the public furore, and while I didn't think much of the author's writing style I was intrigued by the plot. This was obviously a mixture of fact and fiction and had me guessing as to which was which. It seems it had the author guessing as well, since he took literally a fictional source, but that didn't hurt sales.

The Lost Symbol has an entirely different plot, but it's basically more of the same. It once again features Robert Langdon as the resourceful, code-breaking professor hero. This time the action is more intense and confined, taking place within a small area of Washington DC over a period of just ten hours (which is almost as long as it takes to read the 500 page book). The focus of the plot has shifted away from the Roman Catholic Church and on to Freemasonry. Brown has obviously researched the Masons, their beliefs and rituals, in great depth, but I don't have the knowledge to judge whether his sources are more accurate this time.

The stylistic faults of Brown's other books remain. The writing is humourless and clunky with no subtlety or wit, the characters cartoonish, their relationships sketchy, the plot ludicrous. Finally, the conclusion is weak: the plot builds up a picture of deep secrets and mysterious but devastating consequences if they are revealed, but it all turns out to be a big fuss over nothing. However, the story gripped me sufficiently to keep me turning the pages and I read the last half of the book in one straight session, finishing in the early hours of the morning. That is something which I rarely do, so the story obviously has a strong appeal. What exactly is it?

The arcane "knowledge" which appears to fill the book is certainly an important part of it. There is the strong sense (not necessarily valid, as TDVC demonstrated) of being presented with a huge amount of material which allows the reader to get inside a secret world. He has also packed the book with those esoteric "can that be true?" nuggets, such as that the Christian practice of concluding a prayer with "Amen" actually derives from the worship of Amon, the Egyptian sun god (according to the Wiki entry on "amen", not true). By itself, this would be intriguing but not sufficient. What makes Brown's books so successful is that this material is wrapped up in a driving, relentless narrative which is all-action from start to finish, with more twists and turns than I could keep track of (including a real surprise close to the end).

Basically, to enjoy this book you need to park your critical faculties for the duration and just go with the flow. It will never win any literary prizes but it would be a good distraction on a long flight.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Interzone 224

The September-October issue of this British SF magazine contains a departure from normal practice; instead of six short stories, there is one novella and four others.

The novella is Sublimation Angels by Jason Sandford, who has previously had a couple of well-liked, intriguing and rather weird short stories published in Interzone. This one is set in a distant, star-travelling future when humanity is largely managed by its AIs. The Aurals, incorporeal but powerful beings of light and energy, have been discovered but have refused to communicate except to a small group of explorers sent to occupy a remote planet in which the atmosphere has been frozen into solid form. Over the generations, the explorers revert to a primitive existence, always short of air (which has to be sublimated from its frozen state) and of warmth. The story focuses on the lives of some of these explorers and their relationship with the Aurals.

I was strongly reminded of Fritz Leiber's short story A Pail of Air which Sanford acknowledges in his dedication. This is set on a frozen Earth which has become detached from the Sun and despatched into interstellar space. The survivors, living underground, are forced to don spacesuits and venture onto the surface to scoop up buckets of frozen air to take back inside. Sublimation Angels is a well-written and involving tale, although I suspect that Leiber's much simpler but visceral and gritty story of survival will stay with me for longer.

No Longer You by Katherine Sparrow & Rachel Swirsky concerns a relationship in which the woman has a far more than singular interest in the man…a strange tale of multiple personalities.

Shucked by Adrian Joyce is a surreal horror story about the spirit of a demonic hound able to absorb and animate people – and even a coffee machine (that explains a lot…).

The Godfall's Chemsong by Jeremiah Tolbert is set on a planet among intelligent aliens who live on the seabed, communicating by scent – "chemsong" – and living off "godfall"; bodies which fall from above. Surely the first time that humans have featured in a story solely as carrion.

The Festival of Tethselem by Chris Butler initially has what appears to be a traditional plot in which a pair of thieves visit a planet to steal a sacred statue, only to discover that the statue has some very peculiar properties indeed, providing an unexpected ending.

Illustrations are by Adam Tredowski with an atmospheric cover of a landscape full of alien structures (I like that sort of thing – it reminds me of what first drew me to SF), with Paul Drummond, Mark Pexton, Dave Senecal and Martin Bland illustrating the stories.

Other features include an interview with Robert Holdstock focusing on his new book, Avilion. I must get this one as it is a sequel to Mythago Wood, the eerie tale of ancient wood magic which made a strong impression on me when I read it a couple of decades ago. There are several other book reviews as well as the usual emphasis on recent films and TV programmes. In the news section, I was sorry to hear of the death of Paul O. Williams (no relation – as far as I know) an academic who published the impressive seven-book Pelbar Cycle in the early 1980s, a complex tale set in a far-future USA which has reverted to a more primitive level of existence. I still have my set to re-read sometime.
I recently saw Angels and Demons, the film based on the Dan Brown book. From what I can recall of the book, the film follows its plot quite closely (which is not much of a compliment). This results in the pace being frantic and the characterisation minimal. As such things go, it's not a bad popcorn movie but it takes itself too seriously; there isn’t an (intended) smile in the whole film. Probably best enjoyed with a slightly drunken audience making ribald remarks at (in)appropriate moments. One minor detail for car enthusiasts: a new Lancia Delta is given a prominent role (I wonder how much they paid for that?). Lancias have of course not been imported into the UK for over twenty years since they demonstrated a positively alchemical ability to convert car body steel into rust. They keep promising to return, but no sign so far.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Ultrameta by Douglas Thompson

Ultrameta is one of the strangest novels I've ever read. It tells the extraordinary story of the enigmatic Alexander Stark, a professor of English at Glasgow University, who disappears for ten years. During that time, his wife receives a series of notes from him, accounts of the life – or rather lives – he is leading. The novel consists of these accounts, occasionally interspersed with conversations between the detective and the journalist who are working together to solve the mystery of Stark's disappearance and who gradually become obsessed with their search, to their cost.

The accounts vary wildly; it seems that Stark is many different people, sometimes women, and that he kills himself at the end of each account, only to awaken in a new body with no memory of who he is or of any of his past lives. His only link with continuity are the Keepers he has appointed to watch over him and track down each incarnation, preserving his scribbled accounts. Stark's role, it seems, is to be an observer of humankind, a blank tablet absorbing what he sees on each awakening.

The situations he finds himself in vary in time and in tone, between the surreal (the strongest element), fantasy, SF and horror. Overall, this book is very hard to categorise and might best be designated "slipstream"; that catch-all title for unreal fiction which doesn't easily fit into anything else. The accounts are linked to each other by the device of having most of them start with the protagonist finishing reading the previous account. This reminds me of a short animated film I saw many years ago, which consisted of the camera zooming away from a series of images, each in turn becoming a minor element within the next to be revealed.

The quality of the writing is exceptional, often poetic. One example, concerning the way in which clouds fascinated him as a young boy:

"And the clouds seemed to say: Remember us, we are the guardians of your dreams, the scouts of your future, the memorials of your regrets. Remember how we first awoke you as you became aware, a child in your cot on summer evenings, laughing, smiling at the honey flavour of life's light. It was us your eyes first looked up to. Or later, on bored windy afternoons, you watched grey stormclouds racing in battle formation and prepared for the world's end. Or going on holiday, looking from car windows, you watched our white galleons drifting in the ocean of blue up ahead, dancing with distant peaks, like ice cubes in lemonade, we sang of summer and glamour."

It is hard, if not impossible, to make sense of exactly what is going on, even after finishing the book. However, the quality of the writing and the surreal and intriguing stories caught my imagination. This is one book I'll be keeping for another read – at least.